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The earliest craft

How we know about ancient craft

Our understanding of early boats comes mainly from contemporary illustrations and models and from the very few remains that have been examined by archaeologists.  Written records are sparse: just a few from Egypt with more in Greek and Roman times.  It is not surprising that there are gaps in our knowledge, with many exciting discoveries still to be made.

Illustrations of boats are found on rock carvings, fragments of pottery, tomb paintings and decorations on monuments.  Very crude models of boats have been found in graves.  Although difficult to date, all these give an idea of how the boat was propelled, by paddle, oar or sail.  However, they are crudely executed and much interpretation is necessary, often giving rise to controversy.

Rarer, but exceedingly valuable, are actual remains of ancient craft either where they sank or buried in the ground.  Under water, wooden boats quite rapidly disappear, but cargoes like stone or jars of wine help to preserve the wood underneath them: the bottoms of the boats.  Remains of vessels may become buried in mud, which preserves them because it contains very little oxygen.  Other boats are deliberately buried, as at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk where a Viking longship was used as a grave for an important chieftain.  Such remains are often fragmentary and need very careful preservation.  However, they can be dated by measuring carbon-14 or from studying tree rings, and often reveal very important details about how the vessel was put together. 

The few surviving written references to ancient boats are usually about their use in warfare.  However, occasional gems occur: for instance, from Homer we know the Greeks had 20-oar merchant ships and 50-oar warships.

Another source of information is surviving traditions of boat construction.  Across the world, many different types of boats have been built until recently along similar lines to how ancient boats would have been built, including dugouts, reed boats, rafts, skin boats and early planked boats.  Interpreting this evidence needs care, however, as it cannot be assumed the techniques or tools used are identical to those of ancient times.

In a few cases there is enough evidence from these sources to construct replicas of early vessels.  This has given valuable insights into the problems of building them and their sailing qualities, the latter showing what voyages could be made with these vessels.